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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Much ado about ...

by John Brummett | January 28, 2021 at 3:19 a.m.

The Tom Cotton thing is not a thing.

We don't have things in American politics anymore. We have only embedded biases embracing our versions of the truth and harboring disdain for other versions.

This column will offer less a judgment of the merit of criticism Cotton has received than an assessment of the political consequence.

There isn't any.

Salon, an online magazine, broke the story that, while Cotton had claimed over the years to have been an Army Ranger and to have seen battle as one in Iraq, he wasn't really and hadn't really.

He volunteered to enlist in the Army after 9/11 and to participate in Ranger training. He completed an eight-week Ranger program open to all volunteering personnel that is rigorous in training for light-infantry tactics. Thus, he won the right to wear what's called the Ranger Tab.

But he did not join the elite unit doing elite things, requiring further specialized training.

So, when he says he saw combat as an Army Ranger ... did he?

Apparently, the answer will forever depend on what the definition of Ranger is. And, in this instance, conservatives will define Ranger to extol Cotton, and liberals will define it to disparage him.

Some will say you should wear the name only for serving in the elite unit. Others will say you are perfectly correct in asserting you saw combat in Iraq as a Ranger if indeed seeing combat and having completed that course to earn the designation but not actually doing so with the elite force.

The real question is whether this is an issue that will redefine Cotton downward. And it isn't. The political hit job is a dud.

As was the case before the story, Cotton remains widely admired for interrupting his promising legal career to volunteer for combat.

As was the case before the story, it remains that he saw combat and did so as an Army Ranger to the extent he completed the school and wore the tab.

As was the case before the story, it remains that he fashions a political biography largely on his ever-ready willingness to tout that military service. He has never been the kind of combat veteran who doesn't tell you about it.

As was the case before the story, Cotton's conservative base remains disdainful of the liberal media for making such an attack.

Did the Salon reporter serve in the military? Did this columnist ever wear the uniform? These are irrelevant questions routinely asked. They have nothing to do with whether Cotton embellished or implied improperly, or with the right of a free and inquiring press. But, no, the columnist hasn't ever worn the uniform.

As was the case before the story, Cotton remains a serious figure in future Republican presidential consideration.

Crossfire venom has been spewed on Twitter for no purpose.

Cotton critics say he deserves and must expect such hits if he wants to play politics at the presidential level. They say his press spokesman will need to handle herself better than huffily telling the Salon reporter that Cotton was more an Army Ranger than the Salon reporter would ever be.

I believe that's the same spokesman who won't talk to me, which apparently makes me one of the lucky ones.

But Donald Trump changed all those rules.

After Trump, political hits mean nothing in terms of disturbing partisan inertia.

The base expects and resents them and galvanizes from them. The other side thinks no more negatively of the one attacked than it did before. But it does so with more frustration because the one attacked always gets away with whatever he stands accused of doing.

These days, negative campaigning is not so much for peeling points off the other guy. It's for serving a dinner feast to provide sustenance to the hardened political base.

An article such as Salon's feeds delight to liberals and rage to conservatives. The sated leave their tables fattened with hate.

That press spokesman did not have a faulty meltdown in talking to the Salon reporter, as some have said. She sang a song of strength to the right-wing base. Expressing disdain for reporters is what contemporary right-wing politics is all about.

On the issue itself: Few things are more basic about Cotton than two. One is that he volunteered and served his country in danger after 9/11. The other is that he likes to cite that service in furtherance of his political ambition.

That he has talked of being an Army Ranger when he was not actually with the Rangers, though he did in fact complete the training to earn a Ranger identifier that he wore when he engaged in non-Ranger fighting ... it all serves merely as a bit of amplification on the preexisting positive of his military service and the preexisting criticism of his propensity to go on about it.

So, let us proceed as if nothing happened, because nothing did.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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